Recreating Dreams: An Interview with Susan Burnstine by Nathan Wirth

"Suspend" (c) Susan Burnstine

“Suspend” (c) Susan Burnstine

Nathan: Even the quickest of glances at your work reveals these very intriguing layers of surrealism and emotion that are as artfully and intriguingly realized as they are dreamlike and even psychologically probing. I am guessing that you likely explored other directions before you arrived at your present vision for your work, so I would like to start with the beginning, with your artistic roots, and find out more about what first initially drew you to photography– and whether you think that those initial reasons might offer some insight into how you evolved into the artist you are today.

"Threshold" (c) Susan Burnstine

“Threshold” (c) Susan Burnstine

Susan: My mother encouraged me to begin shooting with some of her vintage cameras when I was 8 years-old. She documented most of my early childhood with 126 instamatics, a vintage Polaroid that worked intermittently, and an optically unappealing Pentax 110 that was always buried at the bottom of her purse. She never protected the optics on her cameras, so the lenses were typically dirty or scratched, which resulted in grainy, blurry, imperfect photographs. I suspect learning to photograph with these imperfect cameras allowed me to develop an admiration for bad optics.

After viewing the first roll I shot, my mother insisted I had a talent for making pictures so she continued to encourage me to take photographs from that day on. Photography quickly became a constant obsession. When I was eleven, my dad built me a darkroom in our basement and I spent the majority of my time in that closet-sized room.

Between the ages of 14-22, I worked part-time for a top Commercial/Portrait photographer in Chicago. At that point, the message that photography was all about making money rather than art burdened me, so I opted to work in various aspects of entertainment for the next ten years. It wasn’t until my early to mid 30’s that I returned to photography but this time as a means to cope with the devastating loss of my mother.

Nathan: Before you began to build your own cameras, did you use more traditional equipment such as 35 mm or full frame cameras? For example, did you play with Holgas or pinhole cameras before you decided to build your own cameras? In other words, I would love to hear about the evolution that lead to you building your own cameras and why you chose to work in this way– as well as what you use to build these cameras.

"Blue's Nose" (c) Susan Burnstine

“Blue’s Nose” (c) Susan Burnstine

Susan: I attempted to use every type of camera that existed before I began building my own. I think it best to explain the conceptual reason why I had no other choice but to build my own.

I have suffered from night terrors since the age of 4. As an attempt to help me process and cope with these dreams, my mother taught me to draw and paint my dreams. She would just tell me it was craft time and we’d start recreating my dreams through arts and crafts.

The process of recreating these dreams through art helped eliminate some of the paralyzing fear I lived with, and thus, it was a practice that stuck through childhood.

The nightmares lessened over the years. But when my mother died tragically and unnecessarily, they came flooding back. I needed a way to cope with and process my loss along with the new nightmares haunting me, so I attempted to photograph my dreams and nightmares for several years. At first, I tried to create these images with conventional cameras but was unable to communicate how I saw my dreams in that way. Around this time, I started playing with Dianas and Holgas. A few months into it, I started modifying the cameras to do things they weren’t built to do, but, still, the images I shot looked like common toy camera images. Their effects were close to emulating my unconscious world but not quite right.

My father realized I was struggling to create a style that did not exist, so being that he was a former inventor and engineer, he suggested I should build my own lens and camera. At first I thought his suggestion was impossible but then realized it was the only way I’d achieve my vision. So I spent the next year pulling apart and rebuilding toy cameras until I taught myself how to build a rudimentary camera. Soon after, I built my own prototype lens and camera in March 2005, [which I] primarily designed to communicate the style, mood and messages within my dreams. The image “Blue’s Nose” was a test for my first lens and I consider it my first successful homemade image.

"Bridge to Nowhere" (c) Susan Burnstine

“Bridge to Nowhere” (c) Susan Burnstine

Nathan: How did you go about keeping track of the dreams and then expressing them with the analog process, a process that is bound, in at least some ways, to the unexpected? Do you see those images as reflections and / or echoes of those dreams or are you trying to capture them as lucidly as possible? Is their a bit of serendipity to your approach?

Susan: All of my personal images are reflections of my dreams and nightmares. After I awake, I always journal them, then I go out and shoot. I rarely plan anything such as location or content. The process is serendipitous, but I am always looking to communicate a symbol, metaphor or actual aspect of my dream from the night before. I wouldn’t say that I’m 100% lucid when I photograph. I am working with the emotional fabric from the dream the night before by reliving it through the world around me.

Nathan: One of the most interesting things I read in one of your previous interviews is the following comment: “Flaws, aberrations, mistakes are based in purity, truth and reality whereas I view “perfection” as a lie or manipulation.” Photography, can be in so many ways a manipulation, whether it is how one chooses to frame something or minimalize something, and most certainly how one processes something– and, additionally, so, so much modern photography is grounded in a search for some sense of perfection, be it tones, sharpness, etc.. How do you perceive and capitalize on the imperfections in your own work– and how does this relate to any of your approaches to processing your images if it does at all?

"In Passage" (c) Susan Burnstine

“In Passage” (c) Susan Burnstine

Susan: Life is messy and so are my dreams and nightmares. If I was to recreate my unconscious world in a perfect manner that would indeed be inaccurate. I am referring to the conceptual aspects of my work, which is the core of why I do what I do. If I was to manipulate these images, then it would be an attempt to falsify my instinctual, unconscious inner world as the process mimics the image. I don’t think I ever attempt to “capitalize” on anything related to my work including the perfections. It just is what it is meant to be regardless of what most would call imperfection.

Nathan: You are formally trained, but, clearly, you are pursuing work that is not traditional and seemingly far more reliant on intuition. How do you think your formal training has influenced your work if at all?

Susan: I am not sure I’d call myself formally trained. I studied in high school and had a mentor until college who taught me the world of commercial photography. I didn’t study photography in college because the more I studied how it was supposed to be done, the more frustrated I would become. I think my personal desire to create in my own way is what most informed my work.

Nathan: You also write about photography and have interviewed other photographers, an approach that I feel places you, quite strongly, in the ongoing dialog of photography as it evolves. Does any of this have any influence on how you approach your own work (and, perhaps, vice a versa, does your work affect how you go about interviewing other photographers)?

"Impasse" (c) Susan Burnstine

“Impasse” (c) Susan Burnstine

Susan: No I don’t think writing my column informs my work, but it does inspire me. Being able to talk to talented photographers about their work and what inspires them has been an ongoing gift.

Nathan: Your work, though very much ground in photography, also seems very reminiscent of paintings. Are you influenced by any particular painters and do you think that, on any conscious or subconscious level, your work expresses a painterly-like vision? Are there any specific painters who may have had an influence on how you approach your work?

Susan: I am most influenced by painters, rather than photographers. As a child, my mother frequently took me to the Chicago Art Institute. By the young age of six I was blown away by the Impressionists and dreamed of becoming one (of course at that time, I didn’t know I was born a few hundred years late) … Monet and Cassatt . . . and then I was inspired by pointillism. Seurat was a revolutionary to me. Seeing “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” at The Art Institute was the moment I knew I wanted to become an artist . . . I recall standing there thinking about all those dots. How did he do it? And then I was introduced to Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World”. That image remains the guiding force and inspiration for me to this day.

Nathan: Do you follow the work of any contemporary photographers? If yes, who are some of the ones that you admire most?

Susan: Yes, I follow many. There are too many to list so I’ll just name a few, a few of which I am proud to call friends: Alexey Titarenko, James Fee, Chris McCaw, Michael Crouser, Polly Chandler, Brad Moore, Todd Hido, Andrea Modica, Penti Sammallahti and so many more.

"In the Midst" (c) Susan Burnstine

“In the Midst” (c) Susan Burnstine

Nathan: Does music play any role in your photography? For example, do you listen to music while you work on your images? If yes, what kinds of music do you typically listen to.

Susan: I did listen to music for Within Shadows. Actually, just one song by Nine Inch Nails called “Right Where It Belongs” from With Teeth. Currently, I can’t say that any definable music is resonating with Absence of Being. It’s more in tune with echoes of silence and the sounds of distant memories rather than being within the present.

Nathan: Keeping in mind that this question is overly general, I would love a quick “tour” through your typical process from clicking the shutter to processing the image and then printing it.

Susan: That’s quite impossible to explain, sorry. I am in another conscious place when I’m shooting. I align myself with the raw instinct and emotion that defines the dream the night before, then I shoot. I actually teach a class called Visual Narratives, which emulates much of my process, but in a way that is tailored to individual photographers. I suspect that is the closest way that anyone can understand my process.

Nathan: I fear that this question might be a bit abstract, and, perhaps, even unnecessary, but where do you think photography fits in today’s art world?

"East Broadway" " (c) Susan Burnstine

“East Broadway” ” (c) Susan Burnstine

Susan: That is an abstract question and I have an abstract answer … Everywhere. The introduction of camera phones has made photography become a principal means of communication that everyone has at their fingertips. Photography is a universal language, even more so now. But what place will it have in the art world of the future … we will have to see. It’s so easy for anyone to appear competent these days by just pressing a filter button. But can they achieve this on a consistent and high-level basis without those easily accessible tools? I think now more than ever the truly gifted are few and far between and galleries are hungry to find those talents. Not sure if that’s a cohesive response, but we’re talking in abstracts so I’ll leave it there.

Nathan: In today’s world, social media plays an increasing role in photography for many established photographers and even more so for many, many up and coming photographers. What are your thoughts about “sharing your work online”?

Susan: I am not one who discredits sharing online. I think there are and have been some great forums, blogs, online magazines, etc.. that can feed the creative spirit. I had a blog when I first started this work and found it immensely helpful to have an audience tell me what was good and bad about the images I created. But after I became clear about the work, landed galleries, etc… I found that my greatest support system was with a few close photographer friends (Michael Crouser, Brad Moore, Polly Chandler, Dave Anderson, Brad Temkin to name a few) and I trust their opinions immensely. If a few of them give me their thumbs up on an image, then I know it works. So I no longer feel the need to blog publically. I do share new images on social media as a means to announce them. That’s necessary so collectors can be kept aware of new work. But I am always careful to protect the image with a copyright notice.

Nathan: Are you working on any current projects that you would like to share with readers of this interview? Are there any specific projects that you would like to work on?

"Lost in Mississippi" (c) Susan Burnstine

“Lost in Mississippi” (c) Susan Burnstine

Susan: I continue to work on Absence of Being. My hope is to finish it this year, then pursue a second book.

Nathan: Do you have any advice to offer photographers who are struggling to find their own voice, their own personal artistic vision?

Susan: Be true to yourself. Learn to filter the valid and true opinions from those that don’t hold as much weight. It is most important to know yourself and how you fit into the work—not how you can emulate another. I focus on teaching how to access this easily in your work in my workshops.

Nathan: Since you run your own workshops, I would love to read about your thoughts on learning and teaching in a workshop environment.

Susan: I adore teaching my workshop Visual Narratives. There are a lot of classes out there that guide you to find your own voice and many of them are exceptional. My class is unique in that it’s a very personal class that I tailor to each student so they can identify and develop their personal themes that carry through all of their images. It’s an invaluable tool that helps photographers instantly hook into a consistent emotion, mood and message for the work. I am grateful and honored to teach this class and have had so many profound experiences with my students, many of which I keep in close contact with. I think workshops are invaluable tools if you are open and ready to take the next step with your work. In truth, I have only taken one photo workshop in my life (Keith Carter), but it inspired me to become the instructor that I am now.

Nathan: If someone is interested in purchasing one of your prints or attending a workshop, where should they go for more information?

"Breakwater Light" (c) Susan Burnstine

“Breakwater Light” (c) Susan Burnstine

Susan: For workshops – I have a news section on my website that I try to keep up to date, but so many new things happen faster than I can keep it up to date so I suggest to sign up for my newsletter on my website, my twitter feed @susanburnstine, and my Facebook fan page.

If someone is interested in purchasing prints, they can contact any of my wonderful galleries which are listed in the purchase section of my website. My galleries are Verve Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe, Catherine Couturier Gallery in Houston, Corden Potts Gallery in San Francisco, Kevin Longino Fine Photographs in Greenwich CT, Galerie Hiltawsky in Berlin and AD Galerie in Switzerland.

Nathan: And, finally, thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions, Susan. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Susan: Just thank you!


Explore More of Susan’s Work: website | facebook fan page | twitter | newsletter

Image Galleries


Within Shadows

"Bridge to Nowhere" (c)Susan Burnstine"In Passage" (c)Susan Burnstine"The Approach" (c)Susan Burnstine4_the road most traveled_burnstine.jpg6_threshold_burnstine.jpg7_at the edge of darkness_burnstine.jpg"In the Midst" (c)Susan Burnstine

Absence of Being

1_The Last Goodbye.jpg"Griffith Park" (c)Susan Burnstine"As Above So Below" (c) Susan Burnstine"Until the Sky Fades Away" (c) Susan Burnstine"Impasse" (c)Susan Burnstine6_around the bend.jpg"East Broadway" (c) Susan Burnstine"Beyond the East" (c) Susan Burnstine"Breakwater Light" (c) Susan Burnstine"Lost in Mississippi" (c) Susan Burnstine"Evidence" (c) Susan Burnstine

All images on this page, unless otherwise noted, are protected by copyright and may not be used for any purpose without Susan Burnstine‘s permission.
The text of this interview is also protected by copyright and may not be used without the permission of Nathan Wirth or Susan Burnstine.


  1. tarjeteros hombre September 25, 2015 at 12:20 pm #

    Such a piece of master art. I’ve never seen something like this. Especially that animal nose, it feels like it’s actually smelling.

  2. Peter Wingerter June 17, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

    oh- i like the pictures of Susan Burnstine since a long time. In the Germans Photo-magazin “schwarzweiss” (black and white”) there was a story about her. Great interview, Nathan. Your questions are not superficial. From Germany…Peter

  3. Andy January 7, 2014 at 12:50 am #

    Excellent interview Nathan. Very inspiring work from Susan. Pure emotion.
    Wishing a happy and healthy 2014!

  4. Matej Michalik January 4, 2014 at 7:46 am #

    Great interview and beautiful pictures Susan!

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